March 22, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Design
@ at MoMA

Ray Tomlinson. @. 1971. Here displayed in ITC American Typewriter Medium, the closest approximation to the character used by a Model 33 Teletype in the early 1970s

MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design has acquired the @ symbol into its collection. It is a momentous, elating acquisition that makes us all proud. But what does it mean, both in conceptual and in practical terms?

Contemporary art, architecture, and design can take on unexpected manifestations, from digital codes to Internet addresses and sets of instructions that can be transmitted only by the artist. The process by which such unconventional works are selected and acquired for our collection can take surprising turns as well, as can the mode in which they’re eventually appreciated by our audiences. While installations have for decades provided museums with interesting challenges involving acquisition, storage, reproducibility, authorship, maintenance, manufacture, context—even questions about the essence of a work of art in itself—MoMA curators have recently ventured further; a good example is the recent acquisition by the Department of Media and Performance Art of Tino Sehgal’s performance Kiss

The acquisition of @ takes one more step. It relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had”—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection. The same criteria of quality, relevance, and overall excellence shared by all objects in MoMA’s collection also apply to these entities.

In order to understand why we have chosen to acquire the @ symbol, and how it will exist in our collection, it is necessary to understand where @ comes from, and why it’s become so ubiquitous in our world.

A Little History

The @ symbol used in a 1536 letter from an Italian merchant

Some linguists believe that @ dates back to the sixth or seventh century, a ligature meant to fuse the Latin preposition ad—meaning “at”, “to,” or “toward”—into a unique pen stroke. The symbol persisted in sixteenth-century Venetian trade, where it was used to mean amphora, a standard-size terracotta vessel employed by merchants, which had become a unit of measure. Interestingly, the current Spanish word for @, arroba, also indicates a unit of measure.

Arroba sign in document from the 1400s denoting a wheat shipment from Castile

The @ symbol was known as the ‘”commercial ‘a’” when it appeared on the keyboard of the American Underwood typewriter in 1885, and it was defined as such, for the first time, in the American Dictionary of Printing & Bookmaking in 1894. From this point on the symbol itself was standardized both stylistically and in its application, and it appeared in the original 1963 ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) list of computer codes. At the time @ was explained as an abbreviation for the word “at” or for the phrase “at the rate of,” mainly used in accounting and commercial invoices.

Ray Tomlinson’s @

In 1967, American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson joined the technology company of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), where he created the world’s first e-mail system a few years later, in 1971, using a Model KSR 33 Teletype device. BBN had a contract from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense to help in the development of ARPAnet, an early network from which the Internet later emerged. Working with Douglas Engelbart on the whole program, Tomlinson was in particular responsible for the development of the sub-program that can send messages between computers on this network. It was the first system able to send mail between users on different hosts connected to the ARPAnet, while previously mail could be sent only to hosts that used the same computer.

In January 1971, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register. By October, Tomlinson had rediscovered and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to defining symbol of the computer age. He chose the @ for his first e-mail because of its strong locative sense—an individual, identified by a username, is @ this institution/computer/server, and also because…it was already there, on the keyboard, and nobody ever used it.

Is @ Design?

The appropriation and reuse of a pre-existing, even ancient symbol—a symbol already available on the keyboard yet vastly underutilized, a ligature meant to resolve a functional issue (excessively long and convoluted programming language) brought on by a revolutionary technological innovation (the Internet)—is by all means an act of design of extraordinary elegance and economy. Without any need to redesign keyboards or discard old ones, Tomlinson gave the @ symbol a completely new function that is nonetheless in keeping with its origins, with its penchant for building relationships between entities and establishing links based on objective and measurable rules—a characteristic echoed by the function @ now embodies in computer programming language. Tomlinson then sent an email about the @ sign and how it should be used in the future. He therefore consciously, and from the very start, established new rules and a new meaning for this symbol.

Why @ Is in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art

Tomlinson performed a powerful act of design that not only forever changed the @ sign’s significance and function, but which also has become an important part of our identity in relationship and communication with others. His (unintended) role as a designer must be acknowledged and celebrated by the one collection—MoMA’s—that has always celebrated elegance, economy, intellectual transparency, and a sense of the possible future directions that are embedded in the arts of our time, the essence of modern.

What Have We Acquired?

Tino Sehgal’s Kiss presents interesting affinities with @ in that it is mutable and open to interpretation (the different typefaces one can use) yet still remains the same in its essence: it does not declare itself a work of design, but rather reveals its design power through use; it is immaterial and synthetic, and therefore does not add unnecessary “weight” to the world.

A big difference between the two pieces is the price, which brings to an extreme the evanescent difference between art and design. Being in the public realm, @ is free. It might be the only truly free—albeit not the only priceless—object in our collection.

We have acquired the design act in itself and as we will feature it in different typefaces, we will note each time the specific typeface as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of.

A Few More Details About @

The @ symbol is now part of the very fabric of life all over the world. Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated than in the affectionate names @ has been given by different cultures. Germans, Poles, and South Africans call @ “monkey’s tail” in each different language. Chinese see a little mouse, and Italians and the French, a snail. For the Russians @ symbolizes a dog, while the Finnish know @ as the miukumauku, meaning the “sign of the meow,” and believe that the symbol is inspired by a curled-up sleeping cat. The @ symbol has become so significant that people feel they need to make sense of it; hence it has inspired its own folkloric tradition.

The @ sign is such an extraordinary mediating symbol that recently in the Spanish language it has begun to express gender neutrality; for example, in the typical expression Hola l@s viej@s amig@s y l@s nuev@s amig@s! (Hello old friends and new friends!) Its potential for such succinct negotiations (whether between man and machine, or between traditional gender classifications and the current spectrum) and its range of application continue to expand. It has truly become a way of expressing society’s changing technological and social relationships, expressing new forms of behavior and interaction in a new world.